Entrance to Keene State College, March 30, 2004

Just be grateful, Gentle Reader, that you don’t have to deal with me in person today.

I’m typing these lines from the library here at Keene State College. (I took this photo yesterday, when it wasn’t raining. I always chuckle when I see the sign for the “Keene Normal School,” which is the old name for Keene State College. Although I know a “normal school” is a 2-year teaching college, I cherish a fanciful hope that somewhere there’s a school that teaches students how to be normal…)

In the background of this picture, you can see Parker Hall, the vine-clad brick building that houses my office. At this very moment, I should be teaching Expository Writing in that building, but I’m not. Instead, I cancelled my morning classes so I can hole myself away in the college library where I’m spending a fretful time NOT WRITING the conclusion to my dissertation…

This morning Chris learned the hard way that husbands should never, ever nicely inquire about the wellbeing of their blocked, cranky, and sleep-deprived dissertating wives: I think the term “loaded for bear” adequately describes my mood. What I need right now, I think, is to wrap myself in a roll of that yellow CAUTION tape that cops and maintenance workers use to signal to people to STAND BACK from some lurking danger. Or perhaps I need a bullhorn to get the point across: “Please stand back from the writer! She’s blocked, she’s moody, and she’s dangerous!”

The problem with this present chapter–actually, the problem with the ENDING to this present chapter–is it’s the very end. Yep, I’m wracking my brain over Ch. 6, the conclusion to my diss: more specifically, I’m wracking my brain over the final section of that final chapter, a modest bit of prose that represents the end of the diss and, by extension, the end of ten years of PhD-pursuit. So as I sit here facing a blank screen with the words “The Upshot” emblazoned at the top, I find myself grappling with a single un-answerable question.

What the fuck is the point?

What the fuck is the point of this whole damn diss: what the fuck is the point of getting the degree in the first place? I’ve spent just under ten years working toward this precise moment; I’ve spent some six years, I think, planning, drafting, revising, and avoiding this dissertation alone. So now that I’m trying to figure out how to say “the end,” I’m left with this huge question: WHY? Why did I start it, why did I continue with it, and why, why, why am I finishing it? In a word, why am I bothering to finish this project, and why the hell should anyone else care about it?

What I’m looking for, of course, is The Upshot.

One of the texts I talk about in my conclusion is Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. In it, Leopold spends the first two sections describing various natural places: first, the environs of his reclaimed farm in Wisconsin’s sand country, and second, various places he encountered during his years as an outdoorsman and forest ranger. In the third section of his book Leopold waxes philosophical, expressing in an essay he terms “The Upshot” the whole damn reason why we should bother noticing and caring about the natural world. It is in this section of the book that Leopold articulates his famous “Land Ethic,” a manifesto which features an oft-quoted dictum of environmental conscience: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

There, in two sentences, Leopold sums up The Point of his entire career: in two sentences, he looks at his life and the places he’s been and he gives you The Upshot. “Here is why I give a damn about the environment, and here’s why you should, too. Here’s the basic tenet that rules my life, and the rest of this book has tried to show you why you should follow it as well.” There’s a reason, of course, why this particular statement in this particular section of this particular book is quoted time and time again by earthy-crunchy, tree-huggin’ wackos like myself: it’s difficult to come up with An Upshot of any sort, much less THE Upshot. So when we hear one that sounds half good, we latch onto it…

So as I’m revising this concluding chapter, I’m wanting in the worst way to have some sort of Final Statement that sums up why I care enough about Spirituality of Place in 19th- and 20th-century American Nature Writing to have spent some six years thinking, writing, and procrastinating about it. If someone is brave or stupid enough to read the whole damn diss, how will their lives be different because of it? What, in a word, should they DO with all the arcane intellectual insights I’ve gathered together in a 200-plus page document?

In a word, or several, I Have No Fucking Idea. Hence the block, the sleep-deprivation, the crankiness, and the cancelled morning classes. Holed away in this study carrel in Mason Library at Keene State College, I have the rest of the morning to figure out some semblance of an answer, something not-great-but-just-good-enough to close this damn chapter, this damn diss, and this damn ten-years of PhD-pursuit.

Once that is done and the dissertation is defended, I can resume some semblance of a Normal Life. Once, of course, I study up to discover what exactly that is…